By Mark Lean
Mar 20, 2021
THE POST-APOCALYPTIC TELEVISION SERIES Snowpiercer takes place on a train destined to hurtle around the Earth in a continuous loop without stopping. The passengers are the sole survivors of a human-induced climate catastrophe. On board, the paying guests continue to live in the style of the one percent, while stowaways eat cockroach jelly protein bars to survive.
While we probably (hopefully) won’t be stepping onto an Armageddon express in our lifetimes, we might be around when bugs become grocery shopping staples. Ÿnsect, an insect-farming startup, which lists Robert Downey Jr. as an investor, is currently working on making insects the primary protein source in fish and livestock farms. Why does that matter? Southeast Asian seafood farms are estimated to consume some 70 percent of the fish food produced in the world.
Skipping the middleman, the company is also looking to mass-produce mealworm protein powder for people: it comes in the form of clean and odorless protein shakes rich in all the healthy stuff including minerals and vitamins, including B12.
The company’s chairman and CEO, Antoine Hubert, believes that sports nutrition is the next food frontier and mealworms should become the staple ingredient of your post-workout salted-caramel-and-chocolate-banana protein drink. Before you stop reading (or exercising), consider: the combination of fibers, minerals, probiotics and a favorable balance of fatty acids in insect proteins is beneficial for athletes aiming for peak performance. To make this premise more palatable, Hubert adds that his company’s mealworms products are composed of a 72 percent protein constitution, without the high carbohydrates and sugar content.
“Farmed insects can be grown almost anywhere with limited environmental impact, with vertical farms that use 98 percent less land and 45 percent less resources,” Hubert tells us. In January, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) gave the go-ahead for mealworms entering the human food chain. It’s as much a matter of practicality as health fad.
“In order to feed the planet by 2050, humans must produce 70 percent more using only 5 percent of available land,” Hubert says. “Studies have shown that using Ÿnsect products in place of traditional animal proteins and chemical fertilizers have led to a 34 percent increase in yield for rainbow trout, a 40 percent mortality reduction on shrimp, and a reduction in skin disease for dogs.”
Ÿnsect’s molitor mealworm could be a way to prevent future food wars while preserving the environment and its biodiversity. But as we in Asia know, around the world, bug eating isn’t really a novelty. Ask any street vendor on Bangkok’s Yaorawat Road or in the night markets of Chiang Mai and Laos. Choose from seasoned crickets, caterpillar larvae or top-grade tarantulas.
And thanks to restaurants like Insects in the Backyard, critter cuisine is slowly becoming normalized, creeping its way onto porcelain plates and Instagram feeds. Here, executive chef Mai Thitiwat riffs on fusion classics that mix the best of French, Italian, Mediterranean and Thai styles with dishes like fettuccine and crickets, and grilled seabass with a scrumptiously sounding side of ant caviar. The restaurant has a bug-based menu along with a conventional selection of dishes. The guys at Insects in the Backyard are keen to emphasize the healthful benefits of munching creepy-crawlers compared to, say, a packet of wasabi-spiced Baked Lays: “It’s low fat.”
In Singapore, the menu at Imperial Restaurant might seem cookie-cutter Chinese at first glance. But you don’t have to turn over too many leaves to find unexpected dishes like deep-fried scorpions and black ants, both of which are served in their original forms so diners are conscious of biting into the crunchy scorpion legs and ant exoskeletons. But in the years to come, bugs could become both unseen and ubiquitous in the food chain — for both firsties and tailies. Some advice, then: steer clear of the black jelly.